Stelmach vows to stay the course

Union unrest threatens, polls are unflattering, another party schemes to siphon off support and there is whispering about leadership.

Ed Stelmach

Union unrest threatens, polls are unflattering, another party schemes to siphon off support and there is whispering about leadership.

But if Premier Ed Stelmach has any doubts heading into next month’s party leadership review in Red Deer, he wasn’t showing it as he met with the Red Deer Advocate’s editorial board on Friday.

The premier was at his most passionate when the subject of leadership was raised. He hasn’t forgotten how readily many predicted his political demise in the summer of 2007. Six months later, he scored a massive election victory.

“Things change. Politics is very fluid. And the worst thing a person can do is start knee jerking to reaction by some.

“What I’ve heard from the business community is we need stability in this province. And this is the province that’s going to lead us — Canada — out of the recession.”

Stelmach brushed aside talk of leadership support numbers and former premier Ralph Klein’s suggestion that 70 per cent support was a bare minimum for a leader.

“I’m not going to get caught up in numbers and speculate on what may happen and may not happen.”

He said the message he has received from Albertans and the one he will take to the leadership convention is clear — stick to the plan.

Stelmach outlined that plan in a wide-ranging 35-minute interview, touching on many of the key points he raised during a televised address on Wednesday and served up to a sell-out crowd of local supporters at the annual Premier’s Dinner in Red Deer on Thursday.

The highlights are: get the province back in the black in three years, freeze public sector wages and cut spending, maintain infrastructure spending, and position the province as the most competitive jurisdiction in North America.

While specifics were sometimes elusive, Stelmach said he is determined to improve the province’s health system, provide better care options for seniors, continue investing in education, and establish Alberta as a leader in new environmental initiatives such as underground carbon sequestration to reduce greenhouse gases.

On the health front, he said only Newfoundland spends more per capita on health than Alberta, where $30 million is spent daily.

But unlike in education, where Alberta is a top spender and has the results to show for it, he said the province is not getting its health performance to match the costs.

“We need to improve access. We have to improve performance,” he said. “Our system is not the best, and we want to make it the best.”

In Edmonton and Calgary hospitals, there are 600 beds being used for long-term care instead of for acute care patients. The province wants to move those patients into more appropriate care. But those who suggest the province plans to scrap 600 beds are wrong, he stressed.

“We will keep those beds open — as many as necessary — to reduce the waiting lists and long waiting times in our emergency rooms.”

Stelmach also spoke of the need to provide the kind of care for seniors that will allow a husband and wife to live together, even if one suffers serious illness such as dementia. Instead of institutionalizing seniors and separating couples, health care providers could be employed to offer higher levels of care in one facility to those who need it. Advances in drugs and the use of telehealth video links to link specialists and patients will also help improve the system.

The premier was less clear about how additional seniors spaces will be created. In Red Deer, two seniors homes are being closed, but the new facility at Michener Centre only replaces lost beds.

What Red Deer could expect as far as school construction goes was also a little fuzzy, although the premier assured there are plans to provide funding for more schools.

One of the battles brewing for Stelmach will be on the education labour front, where the 33,000-strong Alberta Teachers Association has said it has no plans to voluntarily freeze wages.

Stelmach expressed hope that teachers would recognize the $2-billion contribution Albertans provided them by covering the union’s unfunded pension liability when the talk turns to salary concessions.

“Let’s work together. I’m not forcing anything.”

The decision to cut his own pay and that of his cabinet ministers is largely symbolic, he acknowledged. But senior government managers also made a “significant contribution” when a $44-million bonus program was dropped.

Freezing public sector wages could save $600 million to $800 million a year.

“All we’re asking for is, look, don’t ask me to drive a bigger deficit because I won’t. I’m not going to put the next generation in peril and do the same thing we had to do in the ’90s.”

Stelmach offered some hope that unions could get the money back when times are better.

“I’m open to all ideas. But in the interim, today, this is the plan and we are committed to it.”

That plan also includes spending $7 billion on infrastructure — roughly double the per capita spending in any other province. To not spend would simply boost unemployment and social service costs, he said.

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